May 20th 2010, 23:48

According the World Sport Encyclopaedia there are 8 000 indigenous sports. Amid all the fuss about football, let’s remember some of our lesser known games. You can’t call yourself a true sportsman until you’ve tried the polish czoromaj, the Basque aizkolaris or the African zuar, If you can’t find anyone to play these exotic games with 021 suggests three competitive activities that are somewhat off the beaten track and growing in popularity in Cape Town.

Polo. 021 visits Val de Vie in Paarl to explore the aristocratic appeal of polo.

An inscription on a stone tablet on the Silk Route between China and the West declares polo’s regal standing: “Let other people play at other things. The king of games is still the game of kings.”

Passing through the gates of Val de Vie is like stepping into a charmed world. The 220 ha estate, still largely uninhabited, seems shrouded in reverend silence. Like a stage before a performance, it waits with baited breath. The props are in place: the swimming pool, gym, and most notably the horse stables and polo lawns. This is the development’s draw card, intended to set it a well-heeled foot above other themed, gated communities in South Africa.

Walking through Val de Vie’s cool black and white tiled pavilion, the visitor is greeted by possibly the biggest patch of grass in the Western Cape. In mid-summer, the sun shines mercilessly on this 355 x 200 m expanse of exposed turf that looks like it is hand-trimmed by Parisian hairstylists and is head-shakingly high maintenance. Completed to the exacting Hurlingham International championship standards, the green pile carpet is laser levelled to create a one degree slope for drainage. To conserve water, the 103 automatic pop-up irrigation devices are fully computerised and spray their elegant arcs of water across the lawn in the cool of the evening.

Enjoying a beer and an unsurpassed view across the majestic Wemmershoek mountains, Val de Vie’s polo manager John Lister outlines the fertilising, mowing and weeding required to keep his precious stretch of Paspalum notatum in pristine condition. The impish and irreverent sixty year old is a refreshing introduction to what is typified as an uptight and elite scene. Known affectionately as an ‘equine encyclopaedia’, the once Midlands timber farmer has led an unconventional life that has taken him from horse ranches in Argentina to his current pristine setting. He revels in his good fortune; ‘lucky’ is a word that often crops up in his conversation.

John’s antennae constantly twitch, even when he’s unwinding after a polo match. As wiry and tightly strung as the thoroughbred horses that he manages, he’s accustomed to hard work and running his own business. During our chat, he periodically jumps up to bark out instructions to his grooms or say goodbye to a polo player, offering a personal word of encouragement to each of them. To the young blonde woman who says despondently “I kept going over the top of the ball,” he replies, “Enjoy the frustration. It will take you somewhere.” He assures her that she’s making progress: “You’re becoming a playmaker with the ball.”

Suddenly John leaps up to demonstrate the secret of his strong hamstrings: cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, he wraps a leather leash in a figure of eight formation around his legs and crotch, boasting jocularly, “Never pulled a hamstring because of this.” Hamstrings, used to grip the side of your horse as it gallops, take merciless strain in polo. As you lean down to hit the polo ball, they are the only defence between your body and the ground, above which you travel at 60 km per hour. Th ever-present possibility of losing your grip adds an addictive adrenalin edge to polo, the oldest, fastest team sport in the world. Never tell your insurance agent that you play polo: it’s listed as one of the most dangerous games. The high-risk factor is due to the fact that 70–90% of the game is dependent on horses. As Oscar Wilde said, horses are “dangerous at both ends and damned uncomfortable in the middle.” Horses are unpredictable, but there’s no horse that John can’t ride. He started schooling them at age 11 and although he’s fallen off innumerable times, remarkably he has never broken a bone.

Polo playing is expensive and indisputably a pastime for the privileged. But John tells me that most South African polo players are not from the wealthy mink and manure set, but rather people who are willing to make sacrifices to indulge their passion. “None of us have any money,” he whispers in my ear conspiratorially. John explains that whereas in Britain polo was traditionally the preserve of the aristocracy, in South Africa it was originally enjoyed by farmers, who had horses ready at their disposal. Nowadays, it’s being taken up by businessmen with time and cash on their hands.

John has been pleased by the uptake of the sport in Cape Town. Historically there have never been many polo players in the Cape, but the last two years have seen an increasing amount of interest, with over 25 entries (ladies and men) for the first match of the season in October.

Beginners learn to thwack a ball while sitting astride metal practice horses. According to John, polo is for everyone. “Whether you’re a rugged outdoor type, an introverted office worker or someone who has never mounted a horse – I can get you playing polo in one day.” To book for a day’s polo, contact John Lister on (021) 863 6170. Also regularly played at the Cape Hunt and Polo Club, off Race Course Road, Durbanville (021) 976 3968.